Austin Knudsen brought his campaign for Montana attorney general to Havre Thursday, touting his conservative values and his determination to fight drug abuse, especially methamphetamine.
Knudsen, a Republican from Culbertson, served four terms in the Montana House, two as Speaker, then returned home to hang up his shingle and practice law.
He said the people of Roosevelt County, afraid of the massive influx of drugs and crime into their area, urged him to challenge the lethargic county attorney who had become less than vigorous with prosecuting drug dealers. So he challenged the incumbent and won.
Now, Knudsen is running for attorney general and campaigning on the belief that some of the anti-drug measures he introduced in his rural northeastern Montana county can be effective statewide.
Part of the solution, he said, was tougher standards by prosecutors and less plea bargaining in serious drug cases.
Knudsen said he introduced innovative prosecution tactics.
For example, nearly half of Roosevelt County is part of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Traditionally, reservation police have stayed on the reservation and Wolf Point police and sheriff ‘s deputies have patrolled the non-reservation areas of the county.
That made enforcing the drug laws difficult, since pushers don’t pay attention to reservation lines.
So the parties agreed to cross-deputize officers so Fort Peck police gain authority outside the reservation and Wolf Point and sheriff’s deputies can patrol on the reservation.
“I can’t claim credit for the idea,” Knudsen said in an interview Thursday afternoon, adding the idea already had some momentum.
But he said he implemented the idea of cross-deputization when he took over his job.
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Knudsen is running against Jon Bennion in the June Republican primary. Knudsen met with the Hill County Pachyderms before meeting with The Havre Herald staff Thursday afternoon.
He said Bennion’s career includes clerking for a judge, serving as a lobbyist for the Montana Chamber of Commerce and serving as assistant attorney general under Tim Fox, the current attorney general, for over seven years.
However, Knudsen said Bennion lacks courtroom experience.
The winner of the GOP primary will face the victor in the Democratic primary between Raph Graybill of Helena, Gov. Steve Bullock’s chief legal counsel, and State Rep. Kim Dudik of Missoula.
Part of Knudsen’s platform is helping the attorney general’s office assist overworked county attorneys.
During the eight years Fox served as attorney general, the department’s budget has skyrocketed from $86 million to $110 million annually, Knudsen said. Some of that money, he added, went to the Montana Highway Patrol, a proposal he said he supported.
But much of the money was spent on beefing up the Helena bureaucracy.
Instead, Knudsen said, the money should help county attorneys’ offices, which are strapped for resources. He said that in rural counties, most county attorneys are part-time employees, but the drug epidemic has overwhelmed them.
His plan: the state could either give direct assistance to local county attorney offices or establish satellite attorney general offices throughout the state to reduce their caseloads.
The crime rate is soaring, Knudsen said, and there is one main culprit:
“Meth is driving that bus,” he said.
The homicide rate has increased 68%, he said, a trend almost entirely caused by meth abuse.
Knudsen said he supports the Trump administration’s border security efforts, especially because they would effectively curb meth trafficking into Montana.
The conservative Knudsen supports Greg Gianforte, who is opposing Fox and State Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, for the GOP nod for governor.
“He’s the guy in the governor’s chair to work with,” Knudsen said.
Campaigning on a person-to-person basis around the state, Knudsen said he is worried that his race will be lost in the shuffle among hotly contested races for governor, U.S. Senator and U.S. Representative.
Email John Kelleher at [email protected]
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